By Steve Rushin
March 21, 2012

When Golden State Warriors fans booed owner Joe Lacob on Monday night, the venture capitalist was visibly upset, not least because he was standing at center court trying to retire Chris Mullin's number 17, and had to abandon his speech as the booing went on and on and on, in a style long embraced by the Bay Area.

"San Francisco has always been my favorite booing city," George Halas said while he was coach of the Chicago Bears, an occupation that gave him a certain expertise on the subject. "I don't mean the people boo louder or longer, but there is a very special intimacy. When they boo you, you know they mean you. Music, that's what it is to me. One time in Kezar Stadium they gave me a standing boo."

In what might be called a forehanded compliment, a 49er fan threw a punch at Halas as Papa Bear left the Kezar field after a game in 1958, but that's just one more reason to praise booing: It's a stand-in for aggression, not aggression itself. When fans boo, they are only metaphorically pelting you with garbage, and in doing so they experience what is often called a catharsis, from katharos -- "cleared of dirt, purged."

In a way, booing is an act of politeness, more courteous than throwing dirt at, or purging oneself on, a coach or owner or athlete. Lacob didn't seem to recognize the chivalry inherent in the booing on Monday night, and perhaps that's understandable. But he might yet come to recognize the strange reversal brought on by booing. How is it that when 19,596 people stand and moo at a man in the manner of a herd of Holsteins, he is somehow made to feel inferior to them? This is the very definition of being cowed.

In other words, booing only gets to those who give it their permission. It was another public figure in Oakland, Reggie Jackson, who said in 1974, as he was leading the A's to their third straight World Series title: "When we go into a park on the road, people start booing me. You don't know how good that makes me feel. To me it means the fans recognize who I am and what I mean to my ballclub. Fans don't boo nobodies."

Of course, fans boo "nobodies" all the time: Ballgirls who boot foul grounders, reluctant Kiss Cam subjects, the khaki'd buffoon who can't kick an extra point when plucked from the crowd at halftime. We boo these "nobodies" as an obligation -- playing our role as the Greek chorus of sports -- and they seem to expect it, to demand it even.

Lacob, meanwhile, is the "somebody" who traded popular Warriors guard Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for the injured Andrew Bogut, and the owner's baptism-by-ire is part of a grand Golden State tradition. In 2000, Warrior fans memorably booed then-owner Chris Cohan when he appeared at center court as host of that year's All-Star Game. Next door, at the Black Hole, home of the Raiders, booing is even more sacred -- a constitutional, God-given, inalienable wrong.

The "music" that George Halas heard from Niner fans is sometimes musical accompaniment, as when the grandchildren of those spectators booed the Giants this January before the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick -- during the national anthem.

But booing is more often an act of patriotism than it is the opposite. Last November, when a crowd of fight fans booed Vladimir Putin as he stepped into the ring at a mixed martial arts bout in Moscow, Russian democracy was seen to flourish for a few seconds. Given a better grasp of American sports tropes, the prime minister might have counterclaimed that the crowd was chanting "Puuuuuu-tin."

All Americans, Lacob among them, should feel grateful that our National Jeer is the boo. In those countries where fans whistle instead of boo, it's difficult to tell what the subject is supposed to feel -- derided, degraded, complimented? A little bit of each? In whistling countries, it always looks and sounds as if the soccer player "booed" off the pitch is a woman walking past a Manhattan construction site, ignoring wolf whistles on her lunch hour.

"Boos are a compliment," according to Alex Rodriguez, who ought to know. Those who take booing as flattery will have the healthy confidence, the utter lack of self-doubt, of Alex Rodriguez. Or Reggie Jackson.

Or Gary Bettman for that matter. For the NHL commissioner, life is one big haunted house. There's booing around every corner. Bettman is booed so frequently, and so unambiguously, that he has a kind of BooTube channel devoted to him: The many YouTube clips of crowds booing him.

He is booed so reflexively -- at the NHL Draft, at the Stanley Cup trophy presentation, anywhere two hockey fans are gathered -- that Bettman has developed his own auto-reply. Booed at the draft in Ohio, he shouted "Hello, Columbus!" in the manner of Spinal Tap taking the stage in Cleveland. In Ottawa, he told the hostile crowd, "I love your passion!" More often, he simply soldiers on with his prepared remarks, microphone in hand, as if addressing an adoring throng.

It's what Putin did in front of the fight crowd. It's what Lacob should have done Monday, and probably will do next time: Roll with it. Even in Oakland. If booing be the music of sports, play on.

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